By the end of last season, the Olentangy Liberty High School football team had picked up enough steam that it came within one play of reaching the Division I state championship game.
Liberty was on an eight-game winning streak and had an opportunity to extend that run, but quarterback Mitchell Okuley's pass into the end zone went just over the outstretched hands of Johnny Wiseman on fourth-and-8 from the Mentor 25 with 49 seconds to go and the Cardinals held on for a 27-21 victory.
The lowest point of a season in which the Patriots reached a second consecutive state semifinal unquestionably came in the final week of the non-league schedule when they lost to Pickerington North 42-0 to fall to 3-2.
Liberty, which beat North 33-28 in 2016, visits the Panthers on Friday, Aug. 24, in the opener for both teams.
The Patriots finished 11-3 last season while North lost to eventual state champion Pickerington Central 31-14 in the Region 3 final to finish 10-3.
"That will be a great challenge right off the bat," Liberty coach Steve Hale said. "They're really, really good. Our goal has always been to play top-notch challenges early in the season, and our league provides that but you can't get deep into that playoff run and see things for the first time. Last year we played (Huber Heights) Wayne (and lost 17-0 in Week 2) and Pickerington North. This year we've got Pickerington North and (Cleveland) Glenville (on Aug. 31), so we're trying to challenge ourselves."
While Wiseman graduated after being one of Liberty's top players at wide receiver and defensive back, Okuley is a senior in his third season as the starting quarterback. He will look for more success against the Panthers after being held to 35 yards passing in their matchup last season.
Okuley threw for 2,077 yards with 31 touchdowns and rushed for more than 400 yards a year ago. He leads an offense that also returns senior wide receivers Mitchell Kershner, Jake Sincek and Grant Wilson as well as an experienced offensive line that should feature senior Alex Azusenis.
The Patriots' running game might begin as a committee that includes sophomore Aidan Kenley, senior Nick Paolo and junior Dylan Stevens.
North's defense should be led by inside linebacker Ben Johnson, an Ohio University commit who had 9.5 tackles for loss last season, and defensive lineman Jack Sawyer, a sophomore who had 59 tackles and figures to be an impact player for years to come.
"We lost a lot of seniors, but this senior group has a lot of kids that contributed and played as sophomores and played major roles last year," Panthers coach Nate Hillerich said. "They've done a great job being leaders in the offseason and going into the year.
"Everybody will ask us about playing Pickerington Central, but we play Olentangy Liberty in Week 1 and then we play (Dublin) Jerome, which is always good, Olentangy Orange, Westerville Central and Dublin Coffman before we play in our league. We've just got to go week by week and win that week and see where we're at."
North's offense is infused with players who should have college football futures.
Senior tight end Tyler Foster, an Ohio University commit, had 27 receptions for 330 yards and six touchdowns last season. Senior left tackle Sam Glover is a Navy commit.
Sawyer could see time at running back and wide receiver, where he'll join returnees such as senior Jaylon Baylor (24 receptions, 339 yards, 6 touchdowns) and junior Chris Scott (24 receptions, 485 yards, 4 touchdowns).
North has a new quarterback after losing district Offensive Player of the Year Jimmy Weirick to graduation, but his replacement is familiar to the Patriots. Senior Mike Lowery, who started for North as a freshman and at Gahanna the past two seasons, moved back into the district for his final prep season.
Lowery threw for 2,379 yards with 22 touchdowns and four interceptions last season, including going 16-for-32 for 113 yards and one touchdown and rushing for 69 yards as Gahanna lost to Liberty 17-14 in a regional semifinal.
"We saw (Lowery) at Gahanna, and he's very athletic and a very good player," Hale said.
Liberty's defense was at its best throughout the postseason last fall, giving up just 21 points over its three victories before falling to Mentor.
Paolo and senior Matthew Rohl are the top returnees at linebacker, with Stevens expected to play a hybrid of linebacker and strong safety.
Wilson (DB) and senior Jamie Hessing (DL) are other returnees on defense for the Patriots.
"Our schedule is so tough," Hillerich said. "We know the potential is there to beat anyone, but obviously, we've got to keep getting better and improve."